Fenwick Lighthouse Turns 150

FENWICK ISLAND – The 150th anniversary of the official lighting of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse in 1859 is rapidly approaching, touching off a week-long celebration of the history and culture of the quiet coastal town just north of Ocean City early next month.

The Fenwick Island Lighthouse officially turns 150 years old on Aug. 1 and town officials are marking the anniversary with a celebration of the town’s rich history and culture. The celebration, called Old Fenwick Island Days, gets started on Aug. 1 and continues throughout the week with parties, walking tours, living history recitals and other events, all based loosely around the 150th anniversary of the omnipresent lighthouse.

“The birthday of the lighthouse provides a jumping off point of sorts for the celebration,” said town manager Win Abbott this week. “We’re taking advantage of that opportunity to celebrate the history and culture of our town.”

Abbott said a committee was formed earlier this year to plan the events associated with the anniversary of the lighthouse and the celebration grew in scope and scale in the months since.

“We’ve been collecting old photographs and artifacts for months and all of that will be displayed during that week,” he said. “There will also be walking tours of homes of historical significance, people reciting living history at the various events and town hall will be open all week. The volunteers have worked very diligently to pull this all together and it should be a special time in Fenwick’s history.

In the mid-19th century, countless shipwrecks near the Fenwick Shoals about six miles off small Delaware coastal town prompted the U.S. Lighthouse Board to recommend the construction of a lighthouse at Fenwick near the marker for the Transpeninsular Line. In the 1700s, the Calverts of Maryland and the Penns of Pennsylvania disputed the boundary between the two colonies in the area of what is now Fenwick Island and had it officially surveyed. The dispute was resolved in 1751 when the survey clearly defined the border and a transpeninsular marker was put in place at its eastern terminus at Fenwick Island. The marker still stands just a few feet from the lighthouse.

The U.S. Lighthouse Board in its 1855 annual report appealed to the federal government to construct a lighthouse at Fenwick Island, citing the increased number of shipwrecks in the area and the fact there was not an existing light between Cape Henlopen to the north and Assateague Island to the south.

“A lighthouse in the vicinity of Fenwick’s island will serve to guide vessels from the southern ports, bound into the Delaware, and also the great coasting trade with the same or a more northern destination. Fenwick’s Island shoal is a very dangerous one for those, and also in some degree for the European trade of Philadelphia,” the report read. “It is very common for ships coming from the eastward to fall in with the coast considerably to the southward of Cape Henlopen, and in thick weather a light on Fenwick’s island would serve to ascertain their position when the Henlopen light was invisible.”

In 1856, Congress agreed with the U.S. Lighthouse Board that a new light was needed at Fenwick and authorized $25,000 in federal funds for its construction. The federal government paid the local property owner $50 for ten acres of what was considered the highest point of land on the island and construction of the new lighthouse began in earnest. It was lit for the first time on Aug. 1, 1859 and has remained a beacon for mariners ever since although there were times over the last 150 years when its future was in doubt.

In the 1940s, the lighthouse was fully automated and the federal government sold most of the original property. The last official lighthouse keeper, Charles L. Gray, purchased several acres of the land surrounding the lighthouse and his family still resides on the property to this day. The two original lighthouse keeper’s houses are now private residences.

The U.S. Coast Guard officially decommissioned the Fenwick Island Lighthouse in 1978 and its light was turned off and its Fresnel lens was removed for the first time in over 100 years. However, public outcry from local residents, citizens of Maryland and Delaware as well as countless visitors to the historic light protested the change and petitioned the Coast Guard to restore the lighthouse. In 1981, after being dark for three years, the Coast Guard passed ownership of the lighthouse to the state of Delaware and it was restored to its former grandeur.

In 1982, a symbolic light was placed in the familiar conical tower relit this time with electricity. While the state of Delaware maintained ownership of the lighthouse, it maintenance and protection was turned over to the “Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse” under the direction of Paul Pepper, whose family still lives on the land nearby. In the summer of 2007, a new “Friends of the Fenwick Island Lighthouse” was established and the state of Delaware asked Fenwick resident Winnie Lewis, a granddaughter of a former keeper, to organize volunteers to continue to operate and maintain the light as it approached its 150th birthday.